Rock it like Soviet Russia

During Perestroika, the Soviet Union was briefly lit by a Rock’n’Roll craze. Photographer Igor Mukhin was there to document the wild years.

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Your photos show a very brief timeframe: Those couple of years during Perestroika when underground rock music culture was born in the Soviet Union.
Yes, it was just a short timeframe, which makes this an important document of a state that no longer exists.

What makes the photos so captivating is that they document a very short timespan.
Exactly! The underground scene was truly underground. Home telephones were tapped, and so all important calls had to be made from public telephones. I went to concerts where the frontman of the band would pick up the ten audience members in the subway. Or sometimes you had to ask around for the address of a concert. Of course, this tactic was later repeated by Pussy Riot. I was fascinated by this culture and how it lived in the shadows, before journalists and professional producers discovered it.

I assume that rock music represented freedom in the same way as it did in the West…
For many bands, the music was an open protest that began with illegal concerts in basements, bomb shelters, kindergartens… and spread out as the music was copied on home recorders and illegally distributed. The government had stopped restraining this kind of expression and so it started happening.

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The Cold War hadn’t ended yet: Was there something mythological about this music? After all, you didn’t otherwise have much contact with the West…
It depends. In the Soviet Union, it had become a tradition for poets to turn into bards, pick up guitars and start playing. So some of the music was in the tradition of ancient Russia – like the band Калинов Мост (Kalinov Most). Others rigidly copied western stars. There was new wave – Странные Игры (Strange Games), punk – Чуто – Юдо (Chouteau – Yudo).

My favorite artists are the musicians from the band АКВАРИУМ (Aquarium) and their mysterious poetry, the band ЗООПАРК (Zoo), which played the autobiographical diary of a punk musician, and the group КИНО (Cinema), who started out as teenage schoolboys. During the revolution, this band was accused by parliamentarians of the Duma of treason, saying they had been playing songs with lyrics written by the CIA.

But to come back to your question: There was actually lots of contact with the West! People brought in music and books that they illegally copied and distributed. For a while, I worked in an illegal recording studio. And records were exchanged all the time. In the forests outside of Moscow, there was a huge clearing where music lovers came to from as far as Odessa and Riga to exchange music; and where you could buy belts and leather jackets.

There were also radio shows we could tune into: The BBC, Voice of America…: All radio stations had rock music programs. The Air Force offered a weekly hit list that played rock.

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What does it mean to you?
Well… I didn’t learn German or English in school. Psychologically, I had no idea how I could get in touch with foreigners in my city, where they only drove around in vehicles between embassies. It’s quite a pity: I went to a dinner to a Parisian restaurant with Robert Doisneau, and at one point Henri Cartier-Bresson came to one of my exhibitions – yet I was essentially deaf. My generation’s deprived of the language needed to understand foreigners and English-language music.

Your photos are full of contrast between tradition and youth culture. How did people react to this new wave of music?
There were lots of festivals, which people from across the USSR attended. But the venues usually only fit around 1000 or 2000 people. Later on, as it all became legalized, the industry quickly professionalized and musicians played in huge stadiums, which I found much less interesting. I was interested in the reactions to this new culture, which is why I photographed many of the people witnessing it.

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Igor Mukhin is a Russian photographer based in Moscow. See more of his work on his website and follow him on Facebook, where he posts a new photo every day.

Many thanks to Ksenia Les and Lora Todorova for their help with some of the translation.